1987 Lotus Esprit S3 vs. 1998 Lotus Esprit GT3, 1985 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo, 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT and 1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo

2019 Drive-My EN/UK and Charlie Magee

The only way is Esprit. The early ones may have already bolted, but for now there’s a wealth of great-value ways into owning Lotus’ game-changing supercar. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Charlie Magee.


We take five Esprits back to Hethel in the name of finding the smartest 2020 buy

5 MOST THRILLING TO BUY NOW

Plus LOTUS BOSS INTERVIEW

Life-affirming drives tipped for growth


There are two Lotus ages: pre- and post-Esprit. In the former it was a cottage producer of scintillating, deftly handling sports and racing cars, but the new arrival changed everything, propelling it into the big league. Supercar looks were soon backed up by supercar performance. Factor in some legendary appearances on the big screen and the Esprit’s cult status was assured.

We’ve sifted through lots of variants from its 28-year production run, balancing values with performance, and taking on board owner and specialist advice, to take five of this year’s best buys to the test track at their Hethel birthplace. These are the cars our market experts think won’t stay at these prices for ever.


1987 Lotus Esprit S3 vs. 1998 Lotus Esprit GT3, 1985 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo, 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT and 1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo - comparison retro road test

1987 Lotus Esprit S3 vs. 1998 Lotus Esprit GT3, 1985 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo, 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT and 1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo – comparison retro road test


1987 Lotus Esprit S3 vs. 1998 Lotus Esprit GT3, 1985 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo, 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT and 1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo - comparison retro road test
1987 Lotus Esprit S3 vs. 1998 Lotus Esprit GT3, 1985 Lotus Esprit S3 Turbo, 1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT and 1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo – comparison retro road test

 

1987 Lotus Esprit S3

Mr Giugiaro, I’ve been expecting you – just perhaps not in Esprit S3 form. Those with an Esprit de corps for the first and second generations are likely foaming at the mouth at our decision to jump straight to the third, but S1 values have peaked and dropped off slightly. And while S2 prices are still rising, it’s the naturally aspirated Series 3 variant that is the most attainable of the original shaped cars, both in terms of price and availability.

And my what a shape it is. Even today, some 47 years after the arrival of designer Giorgetto Giugiaro’s ‘Silver Car’ design study that presaged it, the silhouette still enchants, beguiles and turns heads in equal measure – its sharp-suited body and low-slung snout screaming that a piece of exotica has just rolled up.

Yes, Martin Start’s white Turbo Esprit of the same vintage has Bond cool, but shorn of most of its excess adornment – slats, scripts et al – Barrie Cornes’ stunning Glacier Blue S3 is a lesson in design simplicity. However there is a distinct nod to Eighties modernity in its body-coloured side sills and front spoiler, in place of the matt black items of earlier models.

Initially the seating position feels pure supercar comedy, legs out almost horizontally as if fully reclined on a sun lounger, yet it’s immediately comfortable, and it works. The helm controls are perfectly to hand and the Smiths gauges, rather than earlier Veglia items, are intelligently set in a wraparound binnacle. Best of all is the optional ‘sunshine roof’, which on this lovely clear-sky day sees me surrounded on all sides by a sea of blue – even if the correct name for the interior’s similar hue is silver.

First impressions are dominated by the steering feedback and handling, both of which sparkle. Fire the S3 into one of Hethel’s tight corners and it’s an intuitive delight, remaining neutral as it dissects it with the aplomb of a master surgeon’s scalpel. Swift direction changes won’t upset its inherent balance, and I’m engendered with the confidence to push harder. The 2.2-litre Twin Cam provides a stimulating soundboard – not overly intrusive, but enough to titillate. And while it lacks the Turbo’s clout, the S3 is no slouch. It offers a smooth yet punchy 160bhp, enough to see it race from 0-60mph in 6.5sec – not quite supercar pace, but not far off.

It’s aided by a positive gear change and decent brakes, but it all comes back to that steering wheel; it’s the centre of the Esprit universe, and the driver’s gateway to tactile pleasure.

‘It’s a simple car to maintain,’ says Geoff Downhill of Salisbury-based specialist Esprit Engineering. ‘As with all Esprits, check when the cambelt was last changed [it should be at 20k intervals]; failure will result in bent valves – an engine out, cylinder head off job costing £2500-plus. It also leads on to other things; mounts and pipes you don’t normally consider. A full engine rebuild is £5000.

‘Radiators normally last seven to ten years, because they rot away at the front. You’ll pay £300 for a re-core, or £700 for a wider stainless steel three-core unit and more modern fan arrangement.’ Giugiaro bodies can sometimes suffer stress fractures along weak points like headlamp pods, door edges and side flanks. A car that’s been used regularly and maintained relatively well over a number of years is always preferable to one that’s seen little action and a lot of recent expenditure.

S3s start at £12k, with a good car around £20k and the very best another £5k more. As a starter there’s no doubt it’s a particularly appetising entry price point, even more so when you factor in that it shares the Turbo’s wider, stronger, galvanised chassis and is far less temperamental than earlier variants.

‘Fire the S3 into one of Hethel’s tight corners and it’s an intuitive delight’


Owning a Lotus Esprit S3

Barrie Cornes has owned this car since 1990. ‘It was three years old at the time and I pushed myself financially and bought the best I could. Since then I’ve always had it correctly maintained by Gerald Turner at GST Performance in Newmarket. He doesn’t scrimp on servicing and checks everything.

‘As such it’s been very easy to live with – I think I’ve broken down once in all that time – if it’s serviced properly it’s a dream. In fact, more reliable than two-to-three year old Mercedes we have. Other than a mild gearbox oil leak, it’s just needed consumables.

‘I also own an Essex Turbo, but this just feels lighter, less hectic and more nimble. I think the shape is perhaps slightly more attractive and closer to the original; it’s underrated, because most people will bypass it and go straight to the Turbo, but there’s also less to go wrong on this.’


1987 Lotus Esprit S3

Engine 2174cc four-cylinder, dohc, two twin-choke Dell’Orto 45 DHLA carburettors

Max Power 160bhp @ 6500rpm

Max torque 160lb ft @ 5000rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted

Suspension

Front: independent by double wishbones, anti-roll bar, coil springs, telescopic dampers.

Rear: independent by non-parallel unequal length upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers.

Steering Rack and pinion

Weight 1220kg (2690lb)

Performance

0-60mph: 6.5sec;

Top speed: 135mph

Fuel consumption 23mpg

Cost new £17,980

Classic Cars Price Guide £9250-£21,500


Steering feel puts modern pretenders to shame Twin Cam lacks clout but is smooth and brisk.

The S3 retains much of its predecessors’ design purity


 

1998 Lotus Esprit GT3

As I swap our second-oldest four-piston offering for our youngest I flip my shades on, because this is one bright mother. The Esprit GT3’s Chrome Orange launch colour practically sizzles your retinas and with those lairy GT3 flank decals it certainly makes a statement and a half – introverts looks away now. Hang on. Did you say GT3? Aye – sorry Porsche, but Norfolk’s finest beat you to it.

Via two facelifts – the first by Peter Stevens, more on that later, and a second in-house one completed by Julian Thomson for the 1993 S4 – this is one thoroughly modern Lotus.

Viewed today, this last of the four-cylinder line offering is seen as a return to purity, thanks to its Type 920 2.0-litre engine – for the punitively taxed Italian market – and the cleanliness of its lines. There’s no outlandishly over-the-top spoiler on view here, just the understated integrated lip.

Its essence can also be derived from a cabin devoid of excess accoutrements, bar electric windows. There’s a small, simple instrument binnacle holding just the necessaries, with just a flash of body colour on the gearlever shroud to lift the mood. It oozes quality and could still pass for a contemporary interior, as well as feeling more spacious than that of earlier Esprits. This car has optional comfort seats from the V8 installed, rather than the standard weight-saving, torso-embracing composite items, and as a result I’ma touch less secure for track antics. Here goes…

Having driven early turbocharged Esprits, the first surprise is that I need to apply plenty of throttle because the charge-cooled engine is of a distinctly laggy nature; spin it up to 2500rpm or more though, and all is forgiven as I enter a boost wonderland. Thanks to a parsimonious approach to weight, it’s agile and gloriously light – just 9kg heavier than an S3 and 109kg lighter than its S4S predecessor. As I come off the straight and approach a semi-tight bend, pre-corner braking requirements are negligible; I’m already endowed with Esprit chassis confidence. As the tyres grip and the steering – now a power-assisted system, but with no loss of feel – loads up, it’s clear it can take much more.

The whole package – punchy engine, strong lightweight ABS brakes, precise steering and supple chassis – feels perfectly suited to the track. It delivers its 163mph wares in a bulletproof manner, and yet slow things down and it still makes sense as a normal car. Yes, you have some of the supercar compromises borne of form, but the damping isn’t overly stiff and the helm controls not of an overtly heavy nature. On standard roads it’s only the model’s considerable girth that’ll keep you on your tootsies. But that’s enough sensible talk; after all I have 240bhp to play with.

Says Gerald Turner of Newmarket-based specialist GST Performance, ‘The old kick-the-tyres-and-wipe-the-windshield approach to servicing doesn’t work for Esprits. It needs to be preventative, identifying and rectifying any faults immediately. Do that and they’re supremely reliable.’

Exhaust manifolds can crack and if any of the following – radiators, air conditioning condenser, charge cooler and two oil coolers – corrode then you’ve pretty much got to replace the lot.

‘It’s expensive to do, because of where they are, and you’re looking at £2500-£3000. Radiators are also prone to getting blocked with chaff (dust from combine harvesters), which when heated turns into a cement-like substance that blocks water flow. It can look in good condition and run fine in town thanks to the cooling fans, but will run high temperatures at speed.

‘However, the good news is you can thrash the living daylights out of a GT3, track day it every day, and it won’t bat an eyelid.’ When new the GT3 met with almost universal praise. CAR magazine using an amusing colour-related pun, called it ‘outspanding’. Performance apart, its key selling point was price; at £39,450 no other mid-engined supercar could touch it.

Today GT3s start at £18k for a tired example; a good one will be closer to £30k and the very best £35k. So, people, the Esprit as a classic is just as it was off the showroom floor – a veritable supercar bargain, and one that remains ‘outspanding’.

‘It delivers its 163mph wares in a bulletproof manner, and yet slow things down and it still makes sense as a normal car’


Owning a Lotus Esprit GT3

Vehicle Attributes Director Gavan Kershaw has been at Lotus for 31 years, and this is his second GT3. ‘I’ve only had it for three months, but I used to own the original press car when I was 21 years old. The advert for this example just stood out, it’s that colour – boom! There were only six right-hand-drive Chrome Orange cars built. ‘Behind the wheel the memories came flooding back, except I’m a bit tamer now. The GT3 doesn’t feel old – it’s aged well, still feels relevant and turns heads. Mechanically it’s very resilient. The engine and clutch are under-stressed and it has a galvanised chassis and glassfibre body.’

‘It was the safe bet for me as a classic car; the thought of having to restore something, or the risk of rust, just didn’t appeal. The network of specialist dealers, availability of spares and sheer amount of advice available from the Lotus community is quite reassuring.’


1998 Lotus Esprit GT3

Engine 1973cc four-cylinder, dohc, Delco electronic multipoint fuel injection, chargecooled with Garrett TB03 turbocharger

Max power240bhp @ 6250rpm

Max torque 216lb ft @ 3750rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted, ABS

Suspension

Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Rear: independent by upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Weight 1229kg (2709lb)

Performance

0-60mph: 5.1sec

Top speed: 163.5mph

Fuel consumption 23mpg

Cost new £39,450

Classic Cars Price Guide £16,000-£26,500


Dash layout more conventional than its predecessors Chargedcooled four’s 240 horses are slow to wake, but when they do…

Third styling overhaul was executed by Julian Thomson, now design director at Jaguar.


 

1985 Lotus Turbo Esprit S3 Turbo

If the Esprit was a Lotus game changer then the Turbo Esprit S3 was the game changer’s game changer, so to speak. In came a Garrett AiResearch T3 turbocharger to elevate the model onto an entirely different performance plane. Cue Motor Sport on March 28, 1981, declaring, ‘At last the Esprit has the urge to go with the image.’

Top speed hit the magical 150mph barrier, with 0-60mph now devoured in a scorching 5.6 seconds. Six years after its arrival, Hethel’s engineers had finally brought supercar performance to Giugiaro’s supercar pen party.

Today it has all of the S3’s handling grace, but under acceleration it shifts significantly faster. Boost builds from surprisingly low down and the engine’s torque isn’t all unloaded in a fizzy last-minute spurt – as with other early turbocharged cars – but builds progressively with the full 200lb ft available at 4500rpm; it’s more of a continuously hard push.

If you consider what came before – BMW 2002 Turbo, Porsche 930 and Saab 99 Turbo – the sheer absence of any turbo-lag is a marvel. Lotus achieved this by comprehensively re-working the engine: capacity was enlarged to 2.2-litres, in came a stiffer bottom end, sodium-filled exhaust valves and stronger pistons, and the exhaust manifold was re-engineered to include divided exhaust tracts that linked straight into the turbocharger intake flanging. It also used a Lucas fuel pump and pressure regulator supplying an overgenerous 4.5lb in tickover pressure.

The result is instant engine responsiveness, but predictable performance. I’m charging round the track in an almost identical manner to the naturally aspirated S3, but with the Esprit volume turned up another notch. Yet there’s no need to factor in a sudden mid-corner explosion of thrust.

That Lotus achieved this not with fuel injection and electronic management – both cost and time ruled this out – but with a traditional twin carburettor set-up has the added bonus of making this the best-sounding car here. Satisfyingly rorty intake noise building and ending with a turbocharged ablution – it’s the best of both aural worlds and worthy of a lowering of the driver’s window. Damping feels marginally harder than in the unblown S3, but the seating position is slightly less extreme and the brakes similarly strong. Visibility is somewhat less impressive thanks to those magnificent slats.

This example also brings up one word – Bond. It’s the reason owner Martin bought the car, even if his colour/Series combo is a bit out (it was a white S1 in The Spy Who Loved Me, but a Copper Turbo Esprit in For Your Eyes Only) – okay, so a white one did appear briefly in the latter, before being blown up. No matter, the result of all these celluloid shenanigans was a clear and lasting input into the generation of the Esprit legend, and one that still endures to the present day.

Says Geoff Downhill of Esprit Engineering, ‘The perception is that a Turbo is more expensive to look after and more likely to go wrong. But that’s not the case – it requires the same checks as the normally aspirated S3. The clutch does have a few quirks – the Nylatron washer on the end of the input shaft can come loose and cause it to run into the back of the crankshaft necessitating a gearbox out, bell housing off job to change the worn out circuit. You’re looking at £1500, plus £300 for a clutch exchange (new ones are not available). It can manifest as a strange squeak with the clutch down or up, or a rattling noise, but it’s difficult to spot. There is a modification using a spacer, so it’s worth asking if this has been carried out.’

The price of that extra oomph and movie stardust sees concours examples sitting at up to £50k, with decent cars in the region of £35k. Further down the food chain, rough to average cars are much closer in value to their normally aspirated brethren at £15k-£20k. Of course, I couldn’t finish without mentioning this car’s looks.

NACA air ducts, side sill extensions and a deep front spoiler, all married to that anything but discreet Turbo Esprit script, lend it one hell of a visual impact. Yes its limited-edition edition blown forebear, the lairy-looking Essex Turbo, ramps that up even further, but while it’s the most desirable Eighties Esprit, at circa £100k (rumours abound of £150k offers being turned down) it’s hard to argue for it being a best buy.

‘The sheer absence of any turbo-lag is a marvel – there’s no need to factor in a sudden mid-corner explosion of thrust’

Owning a Lotus Turbo Esprit S3 Turbo

‘I’d known of this car’s existence for a while, but finally bought it in April of this year,’ says Martin Start. ‘It has 98,000 miles on the clock, but like the natually aspirated S3 here today it’s been looked after by Gerald Turner at GST Performance for 25 years so I knew it would be mechanically perfect.

‘It was the boyhood dream of owning an Esprit – we all grew up watching Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me. I love the Peter Stevens car just as much, but for me this is the most iconic Esprit.

‘At low speed and when parking it’s a bit of a lump, but on the open road it’s just phenomenal. I use it very regularly, every week. At the moment I’ve not had to do anything, other than having it serviced.

‘Getting hold of most parts is okay, and prices are reasonable. It’s not extortionate money to keep it going.’


1985 Lotus Turbo Esprit S3 Turbo

Engine 2174cc four-cylinder, dohc, two Dell’Orto 40DHLA carburettors and Garrett AiResearch T3 Turbocharger

Max power 210bhp @ 6250rpm

Max torque 200lb ft @ 4500rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Steering Rack and pinion

Suspension

Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Rear: independent by non-parallel unequal-length upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers

Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted

Weight 1148kg (2531lb)

Performance 0-60mph: 5.6sec

Top speed: 150mph

Fuel consumption 23mpg

Cost new £21,716.50

Classic Cars Price Guide £10,500-£26,000


Wraparound binnacle embraces driver with only necessary information. Carburetion and turbocharging make for a distinctive cacophony. Clever engine tech meant the S3 was almost lag-proof – a revolution at the time.


 

1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT

Simplify then add lightness,’ was the central tenet to Colin Chapman’s philosophy. Well, the Esprit V8 obliterated that; instead, it was another four cylinders and a veritable torrent of grunt that was added. It’d been a long time coming, too. The Esprit project originally had two strands, the four-cylinder (M70) and the V8 (M71), but a lack of development funds saw the latter canned. The idea raised its head several more times over the intervening decades, but it wouldn’t be until 1996 that the eight-cylinder car finally arrived.

And what a handsome brute this V8 GT is. Wheelarch extensions, monobloc alloys shod with wide rubber boots, and a rear wing on stilts – standard on later V8s but a bespoke factory fit on this early one – lends it a malevolent presence in today’s company. This is the seriously serious Esprit.

Slip inside and that sentiment is backed-up by man-sized controls, with a hefty, thick leather-rimmed Momo steering wheel and even bulkier alloy gearknob. Like the GT3, the V8 GT pared back specification to knock 40kg off the standard V8’s 1365kg kerb weight, yet it’s still luxuriously finished in leather and Alcantara.

Andy Buik’s restored car has an upgraded gearbox with straight-cut first and second gears that communicate to you with a low toned whine. That is, until you obliterate all other noise by nailing the throttle. The all-alloy 32-valve V8 has one raison d’être, and that’s torque production. As the twin turbochargers kick in you’re rewarded with a thunderous wellspring, and what sounds like an ebullient rhinoceros unloading its sinuses just behind your head. It’s bloody addictive – shift, bang, sneeze, repeat.

On a long straight it’s brutal, but as matters tighten it’s clear a little of the four-cylinder cars’ delicacy of movement has been sacrificed; it still handles excellently but, where you instinctively guide a four-cylinder through, here you’re manhandling in the mould of Desperate Dan. It’s a big character, like a dog that wants to prove its cojones are bigger than its owner’s, and it shifts that essential Esprit essence somewhat. You no longer lust after the corners – pesky, speed-sapping obstacles that they are – but the long straights, where you can get the power down.

Just like the GT3, its braking capabilities are of a different standard, the large ABS-endowed discs more than capable of reining in high speeds just as fast as the V8 can make them. There’s only a 0.3sec difference between the GT3 and V8 GT in a sprint from 0-60mph; beyond that the former wouldn’t see the latter for dust, but get tight and twisty and you know that fortunes would be reversed, the GT3 showing the V8 a pair of Day-Glo heels.

Says Gerald Turner, ‘The V8’s reputation for poor reliability isn’t warranted. There were some early issues with clutch problems, but the switch to a dual plate unit cured these. Look into condition of the pipework for the turbos – it’s quite visible in the rear wheelarch areas. They hang in fresh air, running red-hot and getting splashed with cold water. A leaky pipe needs the engine and exhaust manifolds removed for access, belts and clutch may need doing and if a stud shears it can quickly go horribly wrong. On a V8 you’re looking at £5k-£10k, whereas it’d be £2k-£5k on a four-cylinder car.

A customer can get a few big bills and think “right, I’m selling”, but whoever buys it gets 8-10 years of trouble-free motoring.’ Gerald says that the gearbox is the V8’s Achilles heel. It can handle stock torque figures, but you avoid cars that have had modifications chasing more power.

A V8 GT can be picked up for £20,000 but it would likely require a lot of work; an average example will set you back £30k, a good car closer to £45k and the very best £60k. Prices for the limited-production poster-boy Sport 350 are stratospheric (you’ll pay £80k for the very best), but mid-Nineties early V8 cars like this are moving out of its shadow, and are again becoming appreciated.

When new the V8 was the Esprit pinnacle and sold accordingly, with 1483 of all variants – V8, V8 GT and Sport 350 – built. That’s 14 per cent of total Esprit sales, achieved in just eight years. Whether it remains at that summit today is down to personal preference, but if you’re a torque addict and your supercar must have more than four cylinders then this is surely where it’s at.

‘As the twin Allied Signal T25 turbochargers kick in you’re rewarded by a thunderous wellspring of torque’


Owning a Lotus Esprit V8 GT

Andy Buik has owned his V8 for almost five years now, ‘When I bought it the top condition was good, but the underside was showing its age – the previous owners putting money in the wrong places to keep it looking like it was in A1 condition.’

The car went through a two-year full nut and bolt restoration at Andy’s Saab specialist business. ‘My parts cost was a tad over £40k, with approximately 1000 hours of labour because every single part was stripped, vapourblasted, etched and re-painted. It was returned to factory specification, except for an upgraded gearbox – gearset, shafts and straight-cut first and second gears – with a stronger limited-slip differential.’

‘I built it to last another 20 years before major work will be needed, so my running budget is just down to service costs. There’s just such a special feeling when driving it– as with any Lotus it’s like being in a fishbowl. People stop and stare.’


1998 Lotus Esprit V8 GT

Engine 3506cc V8, twin Allied Signal T25 turbochargers, Lotus fuel injection

Max power 350bhp @ 6500rpm

Max torque 295lb ft @ 4250rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Discs front and rear, ABS

Suspension

Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar;

Rear: independent by upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers

Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted

Weight 1325kg (2921lb)

Performance 0-60mph: 4.8sec;

Top speed: 170mph

Fuel consumption 21mpg

Cost new £49,950

Classic Cars Price Guide £19,000-£30,000


Gone is the usual Esprit delicacy, as the chunky controls suggest.

Lotus’ fuel injection system uses eight port injectors plus two throttle body injectors that come on at high power.

V8 trades in some mid-corner featherfootedness for stonking straight-line acceleration.


 

1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo

For humans and car designs alike, the ageing process is inevitable. The choice: to hang on for grim life to your era – like a hirsute Seventies medallion man raging against the dying light of disco – while all else evolves around you, or change. The Esprit’s sharp-penned lines were starting to look just a little bit tired 11 years into production, and this was reflected in falling sales. Fellow wedges such as Ferrari’s 308 GT4 and Lamborghini’s Urraco had long since departed the scene but, in the most impressive sleight of hand since Karmann’s Triumph TR5-into-TR6, the company’s in-house design team – headed by Colin Spooner and utilising the pen of freelancer Peter Stevens – released its ‘new’ Esprit in 1987.

Looking at Wendy Lloyd-Owen’s X180 Turbo, a 40th Anniversary Commemorative Edition, it’s clear they did a superb job. The new Vacuum Assisted Resin Injection (VARI) production technique means the pin-sharp central seam has been deleted – also resulting in a substantially stiffer body – while there’s also a distinct softening of the edges. It’s like viewing an Esprit through gauze; it’s a soft-core version of the original’s by now harder-core lines. Toss in this example’s Pearlescent White paint, and it’s time to state loud and proud, ‘Welcome to the Eighties.’

Given the decade, the burr wood dashboard may seem like a backward step, but the cabin has a newfound plushness with a profusion of soft Connolly leather and suede inserts. It’s marginally more spacious inside, but the biggest gain is in cabin insulation. The Twin Cam remains an urgent presence although you lose some aural connection – we’re talking a matter of degrees, though.

For the X180 out went the Citroen SM gearbox, with a Renault 25-derived transaxle replacing it; the resultant shift is meatier with a tendency to self-centre, so a firmer hand is required. Performance is a tad up on our earlier Turbo, but there’s a definite overall sense of increased solidity – it feels more taut, together and planted. That inspires more confidence, and after a day hooning multiple Esprits round Hethel my trust in the chassis is absolute.

Chicanes, long sweepers, and hairpins are dispatched with nonchalance, while I stretch the Turbo’s high-speed legs on the straights. As with the four other cars here it’s mightily satisfying. ‘While people could buy the X180 quite cheaply for a while, they couldn’t always afford to run them,’ says Geoff Downhill. ‘We’re finding a lot of “home repairs” on this model, and on some cars we spend quite a lot of time putting right bodges.’

Again it’s the usual Esprit checks – radiators, cambelts and a particularly keen eye on service history. For all post-1987 cars the only real issue with regards to bodyshells and the chassis is accident damage, and for all, lift damage from incorrect hoisting. ‘A few alternators are starting to fail and play in the steering can either be a result of steering rack wear (£400 for a new one) or lower steering UJ wear (£100). The alloy uprights on the rear suspension arms are also prone to corrosion, and you need to be extremely careful repairing them because any excessive force can break the lugs off. For all models, check to see if new fuel tanks have been fitted because they also have a tendency to rust.’

X180 Turbo prices start at £10k for a rough example, £21k for a good solid car and up to £26k for the very best, which makes it the best value Esprit entry point. If you go for the high-performance (264bhp, rather than 210bhp) charge-cooled SE then it’s approximately another £5000 on top of those prices.

In SE form, the X180 also had its own time in the big screen limelight thanks to an appearance in the 1990 blockbuster Pretty Woman. Lotus stepped in where other prestige marques had feared to tread, given the subject matter. A brave move that once again paid off in bringing the Esprit before a new celluloid generation. The marque apparently saw its US orders triple overnight. Would it have been so keen had the setting been a seedy Kings Cross, rather than a glamorous Sunset Boulevard? Astonishingly the Esprit remained in production until 2004 and that shows two things – just how inherently right Giugiaro’s original design was, and what a top job was done on both subsequent re-designs in order to keep it relevant.

‘It’s like viewing an Esprit through gauze; it’s a softcore version of the original’s by now harder-core lines’


Owning a Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo

‘This car is number 25 of 40 Commemorative Esprits editions,’ says owner Wendy Lloyd- Owen. ‘I just couldn’t resist buying the car when I saw it for sale in February of this year. I’ve previously owned two Esprit Turbos and a 1997 V8, but the Stevens design is such a cracking looking car, head and shoulders above the earlier Esprits – it has a real supercar aura.

‘Compared to those examples it’s also much more positive and, while I do miss the later V8’s torque and comfort, this is more of a driver’s car. The X180 doesn’t lend itself as well to being a long-distance cruising GT, because it’s much sharper and makes me really concentrate.’

Since getting the car Wendy has carried out some light cosmetic tidying-up of the engine bay and exhaust system. ‘Now that’s complete it’s time to enjoy the car, which I’ll be doing with quite a bit of local and long-distance work.’


1989 Lotus Esprit X180 Turbo

Engine 2174cc four-cylinder, dohc, two twin-choke Dell’Orto 45 DHLA carburettors and Garrett T3 turbocharger

Max power 210bhp @ 6000rpm

Max torque 220lb ft @ 4250rpm

Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive

Brakes Discs front and rear, servo-assisted

Suspension

Front: independent by double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar

Rear: independent by upper and lower transverse links, radius arms, coil springs, telescopic dampers

Steering Rack and pinion

Weight 1386kg (3056lb)

Performance

0-60mph: 5.4sec

Top speed: 150mph

Fuel consumption 20mpg

Cost new £28,900

Classic Cars Price Guide £10,000-£24,000


With the X180, Lotus softened the looks, dialled up the luxury and tightened up the handling – a honed new lease of life. Burr fascia panel at odds with the era the update was intended to serve. Twin Cam up on power, but it’s less audible from the plusher cabin.


 

Verdict

Lotus never strayed far from the original Esprit’s design, but each of our five cars retains its own distinct character. The smooth-lined X180 hit the visual reset button, paving the way for a new generation and today it’s the best value here if you find a good one. The normally aspirated S3 is the subtlest, both in looks and on track delivery, but is a joy to pilot and still packs a hefty punch.

The V8 came late to the party, and while it’s a brutish straight-line devourer of tarmac it’s definitely more GT in delivery. That racing-derived moniker is a misnomer in the final four-pot GT3 iteration – it can do touring, but at heart it remains a pure and scintillating driver’s car, and it almost got my vote. Today though, for me, it has to be the original Turbo Esprit; incisive Guigiaro styling, game-changing performance, and reflective Bond cool all combine to make it my Esprit to buy now.

Each offers a great value entry point into the Esprit world and with all, today has proven that performance and handling satisfaction is guaranteed.

Thanks to: Lotus Cars (lotuscars.com); The Lotus Forums (thelotusforums.com); Andy ‘Bibs’ Betts; Scot Walker; Rob Borrett; Alastair Florance; Paul Matty Sports Cars (paulmattysportscar.co.uk)

‘Each of our cars has its own distinct character, and offers a great value entry point into the Esprit world’

Five distinct variations on an enduring theme – which Esprit flavour will you choose?


 

Mike Kimberley Interview


‘I won my longstanding engineering battle with Chapman’

The Esprit’s original chief engineer, Mike Kimberley, provides a fascinating insight into the model’s development, production and incredible longevity. Words Ross Alkureishi. Photography Lotus Archive/Italdesign.


Interview


The Esprit project started off from the basis of replacing the Twin Cam Europa,’ says Mike Kimberley, who joined Lotus in 1969 as its vehicle engineering manager. He’d been responsible for putting the Twin Cam Europa into production, and the Esprit was his next project. ‘In those days, new world emissions, crash and crush regulations were being added, especially by the Americans and Japanese. We would have had to try to re-engineer the Twin Cam Europa and that would have meant starting again, which didn’t make any sense.’

At the time the company was in a transitional phase, changing from old models – Elan, Elan+2 and Europa – to the new. ‘Colin Chapman had moved us to a new factory at Hethel in 1967 and invested in new technologies, both of which were building quite rightly to a move upmarket. I remember him saying, “When you’re producing lots of small cars, while they’re attainable, fun to drive and inexpensive, you can be busy fools when it comes to being a manufacturer.” If you’re investing a lot of money in the cars then you have to make enough margin to plough back into new models.’

Targeting what Mike called the ‘high-performance, state-of-the- art supercar market’, Lotus was aiming at the space between Porsche and Ferrari. ‘For the M70 [Esprit] project we were looking to use our own engine – the world’s first four-valve-per-cylinder all-alloy unit – which was terrifically efficient and had both great power output and low emissions. A V8 model [M71] based on the slant four was planned but that unfortunately didn’t happen because of a lack of funds.’ Having been made chief engineer, Mike’s remit now included the M50/52 (Elite/Eclat) and M70 projects.

‘Our first meeting with Giorgetto Giugiaro was at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1972. Colin had his own twin-engine propeller light aircraft and we flew over with Oliver Winterbottom and Fred Bushell.’ They never missed it, because it was the show where concept cars were unveiled. ‘You got the chance to see what everyone else was doing and to network. I can recall Colin being very impressed with Giorgetto, who suggested he’d like to do a show car with us. Colin immediately jumped on it and said, “Let’s do it.” If successful, it would provide us with a potential successor to the Twin Cam Europa.’

Mike made up a stretched Twin Cam chassis, with widened track and a lengthened wheelbase, and installed the 2.0-litre engine and transmission. This was sent down to ItalDesign in Turin, where Giorgetto would style the body and build it on to the chassis. ‘During that time we would sometimes visit once a week; taking off from Hethel at 5am – it’s a long old flight over the Alps in a light aircraft – working all day with the Ital’ team, then flying back and getting home at 11pm.’

The M70 Esprit started as a series of sketches with the eventual silver show car first displayed at the Turin Motor Show in September 1972. ‘It was the absolute star of the show,’ recalls Mike. After this Mike arranged for his engineers, and the designers working under Oliver Winterbottom, to live and work in Turin to turn the concept model into a basic design that could be made using Lotus’s specialised production methods.

‘Oliver spent nearly eight months there, and we coined a word at the time – they had to “practicalise” the concept car. It’d been designed just as a clean shape; one that was beautiful and took your breath away, but it had to be modified substantially to facilitate being manufactured by our body moulding processes.’ This ‘practicalisation’ was only partly successful. ‘By the time it came back it needed a lot more engineering work to be done,’ Mike explains. ‘As an example – the styling model was without blemish. Our VARI process would shoot the body and the finished surface [bodyshell] as an integrated structure; this patented process was designed so you made the body in two halves, joined at the centreline. That meant you split Giorgetto’s car in half horizontally – you could imagine the work that went into that.

‘The windscreen had been styled at 18 degrees, but anything below 22 degrees and theoretically you got double image [parallax]. The A-post was leaning back so far, but it was what made the car look so fast. Giorgetto had lent us the Porsche Tapiro concept car. Colin and I drove it round Turin and got lost in a rain storm – the police eventually coming out to look for us because it was worth $400,000 – but we couldn’t see out of it because of the screen angle; the Maserati Boomerang was even worse.’

Mike recalls one evening late at night. ‘Colin and Giorgetto were working with white plaster of Paris on the model and a couple of big files, scraping away; both were determined that the A-pillar wouldn’t be raised. In the end it turned out the screen was not only flat but had a couple of ears on it at the bottom, so it actually flaps forward out towards the lower front corners left and right. I was worried we’d be able to see the bend in it, but we made one and you couldn’t. It shows you the involvement of both, absolutely intense and right down to the knuckle on the details. The A-pillar stayed, and the “fast visual effect” was not lost.’

With the M50/52 workload taking precedence at Hethel, and limited resources, the M70 project was carried out at nearby Ketteringham Hall by a tiny team working twenty-four-seven under the direction of Tony Rudd and Colin Spooner. With the red pre-production prototype running, it returned to Lotus Cars for further refinement and development in readiness for manufacturing and sale. ‘We were all very pleased with the Esprit; it was very, very good and the reaction to it extremely positive. Lots of orders were coming in, and lots of people worldwide wanted to drive it. Overall, it was a stunning success.’

Mike cites the Turbo Esprit as the first big step-change in model’s evolution. ‘In late 1976 Colin [Chapman] and I agreed to re-establish Lotus Engineering as a client-based business. I secured the Lotus Sunbeam Talbot project and John DeLorean approached Colin. We were also doing a lot of work relating to turbo lag for clients. With the Turbo Esprit, Graham Atkin and Martin Cliffe achieved a radical change in driveability and elimination of throttle lag that set a new worldwide standard of turbocharging. Journalists rated it the best turbocharged car ever.

‘It was also the first Esprit where I won my long-standing engineering battle with Colin and implemented a twin wishbone rear suspension, which brought improved levels of refinement, ride and handling. Using driveshafts as the upper wishbone on a mid-engined car might have been cost-effective, but it certainly inhibited the ride and handling capabilities.’

The second step-change in the Esprit timeline, he says, was the Peter Stevens re-style. ‘The folded paper original was fundamentally a beautiful clean shape, but – like the Porsche 911 – it lent itself to being evolved. Peter Stevens and Colin Spooner did a fantastic job of softening and updating the original, and it was incredibly successful – we were selling 450 Esprits a year before the restyle, but sold 1058 in the first year after.’ This was an extremely successful low-cost, fast-to-market project that firmly established the Esprit as a long-term winner.

Of course the Esprit’s legend wasn’t built purely on styling and engineering; the silver screen has also had a part to play. ‘The movie appearances were some of the biggest advantages we had,’ says Mike. ‘As a tiny company we didn’t have money for advertising, our policy and philosophy was to get maximum bang for the buck. PR was absolutely key and in Don MacLauchlan we had the most fabulous PR manager – so professional, so dynamic and full of ideas. I can’t speak highly enough of him.’

It was Don’s idea to approach Cubby Broccoli, famously putting an red pre-production Esprit outside Pinewood Studios to arouse executives’ curiosity. ‘It was incredible how he persevered,’ says Mike. ‘Eventually he got a meeting and it went into the James Bond 007 films. We never looked back from that – it was literally worth millions of dollars of free advertising. It wasn’t just a one-shot thing, because it’s gone on forever. Every time a Bond movie with an Esprit came out, you could see the sales increasing.’

It was a similar case with the X180 Turbo SE in the film Pretty Woman. ‘After the first screening, the next day we took five orders in Hong Kong for the exact same car! In the film Richard Gere’s character was merely going to pick up Julia Roberts in the car, but Don and I explained how a stick shift could make an interesting bit of repartee between them and wrote most of the resulting conversation.’

The Esprit’s final big screen showing came in the thriller Basic Instinct and Mike remembers being called on to the set. ‘I was onmy way to a race in the Golden Gate area of San Francisco at Sonoma Raceway – where Paul Newman, Doc Bundy and Bobby Carradine were racing Esprits for us – and I was informed that a stunt lady had rolled the black Esprit down the studio cliff. The insurance company wasn’t happy and asked me if I could see whether it needed to be written off or not. Luckily she was okay and, while it showed that the Esprit was good after dropping a long way onto its roof, I did have to.’ As with the other appearances, it was advertising manna from heaven. ‘I think only Aston Martin has achieved a similar level of publicity, promotion and free advertising as Lotus did with the Esprit.’

Mike had just taken over as President and CEO of Lamborghini when the V8 Esprit finally landed. ‘I thought “whoa, really great, what Lotus has been trying to do since 1973, and started again in 1978/’1979 before the second oil crisis stopped it.”’

In 2005 he returned to Hethel, again as a Group Director and then CEO. Incredibly, the Esprit had only just ceased production.

‘I’m very proud to have been a part of it, and to have gone back to initiate and create the Evora,’ he says. ‘My only disappointment is that in the draft business plan of 2006/’2007 there was a new Esprit with a V10. It would have been a fabulous car. ‘That said, the Esprit’s enduring legacy is a testimony to two creative genii – Colin and Giorgetto were just so comfortable working with, and so respectful of, each other – and to the perseverance and determination of Lotus Cars and all the great people who’ve worked there.’

‘In Pretty Woman, Gere was merely going to pick up Roberts. We wrote most of the resulting conversation’

‘Working on the model, Colin and Giorgetto were Both determined that the A-pillar wouldn’t be raised’

Mike retired as Lotus CEO in 2009 after spending most of the previous four decades at the helm.

Series 2 Esprit developments included a front splitter. Chapman reluctantly agreed the Esprit would adopt a twin-wishbone rear suspension. Film appearances weren’t the Esprits’ only PR blessings – a 1978 F1 title didn’t hurt either….

Kimberley and Chapman drove ItalDesign’s Porsche Tapiro concept around Turin to test windscreen angles…

The mould for the Esprit’s striking glassfibre body … they also sampled the Boomerang. Both had a clear influence on the Esprit.

Esprit production made full use of the Hethel site’s extra space and technology over the previous facility at Cheshunt.

Mike hands over Mario Andretti’s personal World Championship Commemorative model Esprit, #001.

The X180R race team at Sonoma for an SCCA race in 1991.

L-R: Michael Brockman, Lotus Cars USA president Ron Foster,

Mike Kimberley, Paul Newman, Bobby Carradine and Doc Bundy.

The Esprit led the charge of new-era Lotus models.

Despite its real-world unfeasiblity, this scene was a game-changer for Esprit sales.

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Additional Info
  • Body: Coupe
  • Cd/Cx: 0.32
  • Type: Petrol
  • Battery: 12v
  • Drive: RWD
  • Trnsms: Manual 5-spd
  • Club:

    {module Lotus Esprit Club}

  • Type: Petrol

RECOMMEND BLOGS